24 July 2009

Book Review: The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

The Night Watch In London in 1947, four people are linked together by both the present and the past. Kay Langrish ignores her family’s money to live in rooms in a building lucky to be standing, trying to get used to a life no longer lived with the pace and intensity of the war years. When not roaming the city and wandering into cinemas, she watches the arrivals and departures of the patients of her Christian Scientist landlord, among them an old man escorted by one much younger. Duncan Pearce works at a factory job far below his abilities, lives with an uncle who’s no relation at all, and hides from the knowledge of what happened to land him in prison. His sister Vivien, the only member of his family with whom he’s really comfortable, comes to visit but Viv has troubles of her own. She works as a receptionist at a matchmaking agency while knowing that her own happy ending will never come, for the man she’s loved for years has a wife and children. Her colleague Helen Giniver struggles with the fierce bite of jealousy and the silence she must keep over her love for a woman she feels sure she is going to lose.

Three years earlier all are living different lives. Helen works in an office assisting those who have been left homeless by the bombs, feels suffocated at home and torn by her attraction to her lover’s ex. Kay drives an ambulance, heading out into the worst of the Little Blitz to see who is left to be saved, and making the mortuary run with those who can’t. Viv spends hours at a desk in a typing pool, stealing away to see Reggie when she can, in carefully stage-managed meetings in various run-down hotels. Her brother stagnates in Wormwood Scrubs, listening to the bombs fall and sharing a cell with a conscientious objector who fears he may at heart be a coward.

And three years before that, the events occurred which precipitated all the rest.

At first I was unsure about reading a story with this structure. After all, you read a novel to find out what happens next, not what happened years before. I wanted to know how the characters pieced together their post-war lives, and didn’t think much of Kay’s belief that people’s pasts are more interesting than their futures. Then I realised that in 1947 that was almost certainly true. Little that came later could match the drama of life in the midst of war, with death and destruction always just around the corner. Once I’d accepted that premise I was far more content to follow the book back into the past, and when the scene shifted to 1944 I felt no regrets about leaving the characters to their unspecified futures. And I closed the book a satisfied reader.

Between this and Foyle’s War I could acquire a taste for the history of this period. The description is fabulous, and covers everything from air raids to bureaucratic red tape to the dreadful food (and I won’t soon forget Viv being charmed by Reggie’s smile and falling in love with him “teeth-first”); and the sense of London geography is most impressive. The characters – and therefore the author – have a deep knowledge of the city, though the litanies of place-names were largely double Dutch to me. I know the river runs west to east and not a great deal more. The setting trumped the characters for me; I liked Kay and Viv, but I wasn’t quite convinced that Duncan should have been drawn into his actions so easily (though, granted, there was a very string personality involved.) And Helen was prone to annoying me. She had a serious problem with jealousy, which is always a recipe for disaster because if you’re wrong, your irrationality is all too likely to drive the other person away. Throw in some self-mutilating tendencies and you have a walking definition of “crazy in love” – emphasis on crazy. What I did love about the four was the way they each chose a different method of coping (rescuing, being rescued, running away, living for the moment) and so provided something of a cross-section.

As well as feeling inspired to read more about those left at home during the Second World War, it’s connected in my mind with the recent GLBT Challenge Eva wrote about. There’s a segment of society it would be intriguing to read more about in a historical context.

Rating: B+


Kailana said...

I quite liked this book. I really must read more from her because I read it back when it first came out and that was a while ago now!

Jenny said...

You know, I hadn't thought about it, but I love what you said about the war being such a thing that it would be impossible for the future to live up to the past. That's an idea that figures hugely in the novel, and I hadn't articulated it to myself at all. Great review!

Amat Libris said...

Kailana: Start with Fingersmith - it's a fabulous book! I didn't like Tipping the Velvet so much, though.

Jenny: Thanks!

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776